Citrus farmers deal with psyllid restrictions
by Cecilia Parsons

December 11, 2012 9:00pm
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•  Navel orange harvest gears up as concerns grow

•  “Growers need to step up and do their part”

Citrus growers, packers, nursery operators, applicators and grove managers, as well as state and county inspectors, continue to sort out the implications of an Asian citrus psyllid infestation in the heart of the California citrus belt — even as they move into the peak of the billion-dollar Central Valley navel orange harvest.

The two psyllids found in Tulare County citrus groves last month and the one found earlier in Lindsay marked the pest's first detected foray into the San Joaquin Valley. The psyllid, which can carry the deadly citrus disease huanglongbing, has previously been found in San Diego, Imperial, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening, has not been detected in Tulare County, but was found to infect a citrus tree in the Hacienda Heights area of Los Angeles County earlier this year.

A statement from California Citrus Mutual said the circumstances of the psyllid finds in Tulare County dictate a different course of action than taken in Ventura and other Southern California counties where the insects have been trapped. The finds in Tulare County were more isolated, Citrus Mutual said, and intense trapping and surveying since the initial finds have not turned up any additional psyllids.

For those reasons, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has restricted fruit movement only within a five-mile radius of the psyllid finds in the Terra Bella and Strathmore areas. Previously, 20-mile quarantine areas have been implemented.

Growers were still trying to find out exactly where the boundaries for the five-mile restricted zones are located. The interim restrictions on fruit movement will be in place for the next six months, unless more psyllids are found.

Kevin Severns, manager of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association and CCM vice chairman, said the belief is that the trapped psyllids were hitchhikers and random finds on the exterior of a citrus grove.

Eradication of the psyllid is the goal, not merely control and suppression, said CCM President Joel Nelsen. The significantly smaller eradication zones would better serve that goal, he added.

Citrus growers and packinghouses with trees inside a five-mile radius of the two locations where psyllids were discovered will have the most responsibility in the eradication effort.

Packed fruit is free to move anywhere, but bins of citrus straight from harvest cannot move outside the restricted zones unless all leaves and stems are removed from bins and equipment. The fruit can be moved to packinghouses inside the restricted zones, or the leaf and stem removal can be done in the field.

Grower and grove manager Gary Laux of Laux Management in Porterville said the added costs of precleaning oranges inside the five-mile restriction zones could tip the profit scales for some growers.

If their packinghouse is also inside the same zone, they won't have the cost. If not, their options are having an in-zone packer clean and re-bin the fruit before trucking to their own packinghouse, or manually or mechanically removing the debris in the field. Either way, they bear the cost of the operation.

Fruit coming from the restricted zones must be accompanied by a compliance agreement with the county, verifying that all cleaning requirements have been met.

"If they have to spend $5 to $10 a bin for cleaning and are only getting $50 to $60 a bin for low-quality fruit, they still have to take out production costs and they could be right on the line," Laux said.

Nick Arcure, general manager of Magnolia Packing near Porterville, agreed that there would be additional costs to clean fruit and said he doubted there is enough packinghouse capacity inside the restricted zones.

Severns, who also sits on the committee that determines grower assessments to eradicate the psyllid, said it might be possible to substitute inspections and pesticide treatments for the dry-brush cleaning.

Packinghouses inside the restricted areas will also have to double-bag and dispose of field trash from citrus inside the eradication zone at a designated landfill.

Some mandarin growers leave a leaf or two and the stem on the fruit for certain markets, Laux said.

"For some reason, the Canadian market likes those leaves," he said.

Under the new restrictions, that won't be allowed.

Citrus nurseries inside the five-mile zone are also affected. Unless their trees grow indoors, their movement is restricted.

In the restricted or eradication zones, citrus growers are being contacted and asked to apply pesticide to their trees. Laux said last week that he had already been contacted by the county about applying a treatment. Unless growers are going to make a routine pest application, the extra one is another expense, he said.

Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual said growers are expected to comply with orders to treat and otherwise do their part to contain the psyllid.

Tulare County began last week treating backyard citrus trees within a five-mile radius of the two psyllid finds to control the insect's spread, but if it appears growers are not treating their own trees, Blakely said, CDFA has the option to back off its control operation.

"Growers need to step up and do their part," he said.

Currently, farmers pay a 9-cent assessment on each 40-pound carton of fruit they sell, to fund the psyllid eradication effort.

(Cecilia Parsons is a reporter in Ducor. This article was originally published by the California Farm Bureau Federation. It is used here with permission.)

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